Sir Thomas declares war on the thieves who storm in by tractor and dinghy

Country house owners are taking high-tech measures against a new breed of clever, bold and often violent crooks, reports Ian Burrell
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Sir Thomas Ingilby, the sixth baronet, founder of the Stately Homes Hotline and owner of Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, has distinct views about burglary.

"At the moment," he says, "the theft of a Titian is treated in the same way as the theft of a video from 3 Acacia Avenue. Our stately homes, gardens and castles set us apart from other countries as a tourist attraction. When items are taken from these places they are not only lost to the owner but lost to the nation."

Sir Thomas is leading a fightback by burgled stately-home owners, fearful that they are now being targeted by specialist criminals taking advantage of the isolation of large country houses, and the rich pickings to be found inside. A rash of raids, some of them violent, have alarmed the country gentry as well as those who have moved from cities to rural retreats.

In March, the Hereford and Worcester home of Ron Atkinson, the Premier League football manager, was broken into by three masked robbers while he was commentating for television in London. His wife Maggie, 47, found the men inside their pounds 250,000 mock-Tudor house. They handcuffed her to the banister then took jewellery, cash and other items.

Sir Thomas believes that "heritage crime", involving the theft of British art treasures from large country houses, should be dealt with under new and separate legislation.

And, remarkably, there are moves to set up what amounts to a private detective force to combat the thieves. It is believed that at the moment between two and four specialist gangs are utilising Britain's motorway system to carry out raids on stately homes in different parts of the country.

The standard modus operandi is to attack at around 7.30pm when the family are at home and the house is alive with noise. Inevitably, the alarm system is switched off and the gang are able to break into the house under cover of the sound of cooking or television. Once inside, the intruders threaten the occupants with physical violence unless they hand over the contents of the safe.

In other instances, the thieves have been more inventive. In 1994, Anthony Graham, 36, used a rubber dinghy to cross the River Tweed and break into the Duke of Roxburghe's Floors Castle, which was heavily protected. Graham took treasures by Cartier and Faberge and escaped via an unguarded riverbank. He has since been jailed but the treasures have never been recovered and the rest of the gang is still at large.

A lorry-load of scaffolding was used to break into the Marquess of Cholmondeley's Houghton Hall in a raid which netted paintings and clocks.

Other victims have been the Marquess of Bath, who had a Titian painting stolen from Longleat, and Leslie Silver, chairman of Leeds United, who was robbed of gems worth pounds 200,000 and cash. The robberies have shocked those who moved to the country to escape such crime.

Colin Norvell-Read, news editor of Trace magazine, which monitors art and antiques thefts, estimated that raids on country homes had doubled in the past four years. He said one couple had been the victims of two attempted burglaries after moving to a 13th-century Scottish castle from their former home in suburban Ealing, west London.

To make themselves more secure, country home owners are investing in closed circuit television systems which are triggered when infra-red beams are broken by movement. Within the house, proximity alarms, which are set off when someone comes within a foot of a valuable piece of art or furniture, are increasingly popular.

Items of property outside the home, such as garden statues and ornaments, are also prime targets for the thieves.

Mr Norvell-Read said that in a recent case in Sussex, a gang drove a tractor through a hedge perimeter around a home. In the space of 20 minutes they loaded it with two 17th-century lead urns and a rain-water collector worth pounds 2,000 and drove off at high speed across the lawn.

The targeting of country homes has increased dramatically as private homes have been forced by spiralling maintenance costs to open their doors to the public.

In one stately home, a visitor was recently found walking from room to room with a yardstick, so that he could draw up a ground plan of the house. At another home, a visitor was seen measuring the height of infra-red security beams on his striped socks in what was believed to be preparation for a later raid.

Country home owners are also concerned at the ease with which the thieves are able to dispose of art treasures.

The Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat), an umbrella body representing stately home owners, loss adjustors, insurers and heritage groups, of which Sir Thomas Ingilby is the president, is setting up the new crime agency, which will be staffed by former police and intelligence officers.

Copat is drawing up a code for antique dealers and auction houses which will be asked to guarantee they will demand proof of the identity of those selling them goods. The idea is already being piloted by Norfolk police.